Thursday, October 12, 2017

Squeezing into sexism?

In my most recent post, I alluded to classical ballet’s flirtation with feminism in the form of Isadora Duncan, a 19th Century American dancer, refusing to wear a restrictive whale-boned corset while performing, and instead opted for a loose-fitting Grecian tunic. While this defiant outfit change may garner a “so what?” reaction from some, her intrepid move inspired me to reflect upon the corset as a symbol so deeply enshrined in history as an instrument of female oppression, but also as a possible symbol of female emancipation.

The “progressive” intellectual and social reformer Havelock Ellis once wrote that the evolution from “horizontality to verticality” was more difficult for females than males, and also that a “woman might be physiologically truer to herself if she went always on all fours”. The blatant comparison drawn between women and base four-legged animals aside, the opinion of such an “expert” instilled a grotesque image of women as feeble, spineless creatures into society from the Middle Ages to the Mid Twentieth Century. It’s no wonder that at the pinnacle of their popularity in the Victorian era, the garb of a ‘respectable’ and ‘decently dressed’ lady demanded a corset, with anything less only insinuating loose morals.

So what did the traditional corset represent? The entire design of corsets with their cinched waists that are quite literally breath-taking, aimed to fabricate the ‘ideal’ hourglass figure in order to satiate the mainstream male sexual desires of the hay day. A slim waist with accentuated hips and breasts subliminally equates to fertility which in turn equates to childbearing capacity, apparently. Men made up the vast majority of corset makers, with Louis XIV of France reported to have ordered a guild of female dressmakers to make all the clothes for women in French court, apart from riding habits and corsets, which were left exclusively in the domain of men. So while male appetites defined the silhouette of the woman, male hands too contributed to their caging.

While the artist Manet once remarked “the satin corset may be the new nude of our era”, when referring to his infamous painting ‘Nana’, the inherent sexuality of the corset has and will always continue to ooze. The popularity of corsetry had fluctuated and nearly fizzled out since Manet’s time, yet we have Madonna to thank for so kindly reviving the draconian garment during her 1990 Blonde Ambition Tour, in which she collaborated with Jean-Paul Gaultier to produce the iconicpink cone bra corset. Riding the wave of sex-positive feminism, Madonna’s corset was a distinctly different creature from the antiquity all had grown accustomed to, adding fuel to the flames of the Underwear as Outerwear movement.

This concept that underwear should be worn over clothes, not under them, or even by itself (why not?), bolsters the arguments of sex-positive feminism that have been bubbling over since the early ‘80s. Despite the centuries of tight-laced terror inflicted upon women, somehow the corset has come to embody this in full. We need only look to the 2017 Spring/Summer collections of countless couturiers for our proof. Along with printed tees proclaiming “we should all be feminists”, Christian Dior’s first female creative director Maria Grazia-Chiuri, showcased the emerging trend with a subtle nod to their boned brethren. Isabel Marant, Les Copains, Stella McCartney,MISBHV, Fenty x Puma, to name but a few, point to the plethora of designers rooting for the revival of corsetry, albeit in a deconstructed sense.

Somehow in the tumultuous lifespan of this garment, the Kardashians enter the fray. Their iconic pedalling of waist trainers as exercise and weight loss aids serve only to remind us that the corset in any shape or form is repugnant to feminist ideals. Kim, Khloé and Kylie being the most flagrant offenders, attempt to reinforce this idea of centuries past that the hourglass figure equates to beauty by pawning it off as “body positivity”. Unfortunately for the rest of us lacking in surgically endowed curves, waist trainers won’t give us anything other than indigestion and a sense of inferiority.

Women’s bodies have never been good enough, a fact that has repeatedly reasserted itself throughout history, and corsetry hasn’t been alone in highlighting this. From foot binding to fad diets, there has never really been an acceptance of the uniqueness and individuality of the female form. Although sex-positive feminism and the Underwear as Outerwear movement have characterised modern day corsetry as being a distinct choice that women have control over as opposed to a mandatory imposition, in light of what the corset originally and still fundamentally embodies, it’s safe to say no amount of Madonna’s or Kim Kardashian’s will ever squeeze me back into this form of sexism.


Omar de la Cruz said...

Suzanne, thank you for your great post. While I knew of the origins of the corset, I never bothered to track its development through history. I found it interesting hearing your take on the modern day revival of the corset. I think I agree with you about it not sitting quite well to bring use the corset and give it as pass just because it's being touted as body positive. My opinion on the subject should not matter much, who am I as a man to tell a woman that what she's wearing is anti-feminist. I'm curious to hear more about how you'd respond to women like the Kardashians and Madonna who would probably say they're reclaiming oppressive symbols of the past. Lastly, I have to admit I had never heard of foot binding. My jaw literally when I looked into it further.

Aoife Mee said...

Great post Suzanne! I totally agree with your argument that waist trainers go "against the grain" of feminism especially given the severe health consequences they cause for women in their pursuit of "beauty".

I did some research on the effects of waist trainers and corset-style garments, and I was appalled to discover that wearing them for days, weeks or months at a time can have very serious consequences. They effectively crush women's internal organs, preventing for example, their diaphragm from contracting and thus limiting their ability to breath properly. This in turn, can lead to dizziness and fainting. In addition, waist trainers can cause acid reflux and chest pain, as well as issues of constipation and indigestion. In fact, there is virtually no evidence that they contribute to weight loss or that they have any long term "waist cinching" effects. In fact, wearing such garments on a regular basis weakens your core and back muscles.

For all of these reasons, and the ones you discuss, I am shocked that celebrities like Madonna and the Kardashians, who are role models for so many young girls, are promoting what is effectively a form of "self-harm".

B. Williams said...

Suzanne, your posts always have a way of making me see unique things (ballet!) from a feminist perspective. Now we're talking corsets! I have certainly noticed the renewed obsession with and fetishization of the "hourglass figure" as personified by the Kardashians, Nicki Minaj, Ashley Graham, etc. Corsets aren't the only product developed to help women conform to this idealized body type... I learned recently that there is a burgeoning "butt pad" and "hip pad" industry, where cotton and silicone inserts are sewn into shape wear to exaggerate the hip/waist ratio of the wearer. Apparently, butt enhancement surgery is also the fastest-growing plastic surgery craze ( Given the lengths women will go to for the 36/24/36 look, corsets almost seem quaint by comparison. It's clear that the desire to obtain a certain body shape is still very pervasive in popular culture and in women's psyche. What's especially frustrating to me is it's difficult to imagine men wearing these ridiculous clothing items (also gonna shout out to high heels here!). While I won't shame women for choosing to wear corsets, or heels, or butt pads, or any other clothing item that makes them feel comfortable/confident, I do hope that over time the body positivity movement erodes the public fascination with one particular body type.

On a similar but separate note, I wonder if the renewed focus on the hourglass figure is popular culture's way of deigning to the body-positivity and "real women have curves" movements within western societies. I say this while reflecting on the days of "heroin chic" where waify women devoid of fat and muscle tone were seen as the ideal. I doubt heroin chic would be a commercially or broadly popular aesthetic given the strides women have made toward body acceptance today.

Joterias! said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post! As a “big gurl” myself, I can’t imagine wearing a corset for extended periods of time. Also, I agree with your sentiment that waist trimmers are a physical manifestation of patriarchy’s subjugation of women’s bodies, and a tool to sate heterosexual men’s sexual desires. That made me wonder if the same could be said about much of the apparel we don today? Indeed, I feel like we’re always dressing for someone else.

Your post also reminded me of the Tejano artist Selena, who would wear bustiers—colorful, glittery, intricately embroidered bras worn as standalone tops—during her performances. Quite often she would pair a scintillating bustier with formfitting pants. Arguably, her look, which became part of her brand, appealed to her straight male fans. More importantly, however, I think she wanted to visually rail against the Tejano music industry’s conservatism that disproportionately excluded women from its ranks. By performing in bustiers, Selena not only subverted machista expectations of how Latina women should dress or perform femininity on stage, she also confronted sexism in the Tejano music industry by, ironically, being sexy.

I think the same could be said of other contemporary fashion-trends. Like you, I’m not a fan of much of the crap the three “Ks” peddle. But I do appreciate their and other women’s efforts to refashion old fashion trends as a way of subverting normative views of how women should look or dress like.

[Regarding feet-binding: Thank you for bringing that to my attention. It’s shocking!]